Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What I'm Reading: Sundown Towns

I'm not through with this one yet (I'm about a third of the way done), but it's really affecting me. Sundown Towns by James Loewen is a thorough chronicle of the creation of America's racial landscape. (Sundown towns are towns where non-whites needed to be out of town by sundown.) It's a difficult book, because it makes me think so consciously about the most horrible aspects of our racial history (and our present condition).

Some of the ideas and concepts were presented in Loewen's fantastic, Lies My Teacher Told Me, but here we're getting more detail about this particular issue. Basically, anytime you see an all-white town, county, neighborhood, or suburb, it didn't get that way by accident.

After the Civil War, free blacks emerged from the South and settled all across the country, especially in small towns and rural areas (ours was an agrarian society and most of them had experience in agriculture). However, Reconstruction came crashing to an end, and from 1890-1930, we experienced our worst period of race relations. During this time, racism surged throughout the country, and racial minorities were forced out of small towns and the countryside across the country, in a wave of ethnic cleansing, the results of which still linger to this day.

(Did you know that in 1870 Chinese made up nearly a third of the population of Idaho. By 1910, they were almost all gone. This happened all across the West.)

Even later, as the suburbs began to be developed, blacks and other minorities were consciously excluded again. "Every community in America founded after 1890 and before 1960 by a single developer or owner--kept out African American from its beginnings."

Loewen is from Illinois, where I also grew up. And he's found 474 towns that are or were sundown towns. When we lived in Champaign a few years ago, I heard about little farm towns that were still sundown towns. It's the kind of information that spreads by word of mouth (and it's important information when you're the parent of black children). It makes me sick to think of the history behind these towns. (Wait until you see the chart of Indiana showing sundown counties. Though perhaps it's not a shock, since the state elected a klansman governor in 1924.)

Basically, in the North, Midwest, and Western states, blacks were burned, shot and lynched out of small towns and communities, and forced to live in large urban slums.

It's a big book, and I've got a long way to go. I'm learning a lot (and stuff that I really need for me and my kids to know), and it's not easy to stomach.

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